One in four people will be diagnosed with a mental health condition during their lifetime. If it isn’t you, it’s someone you know and love. No one will be unaffected by mental health challenges to one extent or another. Moreover, suicide rates are climbing and we still can’t talk about mental illness or suicidality in church without causing a stir, or worse. There are some among us who hold fast to the archaic belief that mental illness in general and suicidality in particular are caused by demons. If not demons, then mental health challenges are viewed as punishment from God. This is utter nonsense and another example of how biblical literalism is killing us. It’s World Mental Health Day. There’s no better time for the church as a whole to leave behind outdated theology that promotes shame, stigma, and silence.
In Mark’s gospel Jesus tells the story of a rich person who came to him asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man was a decent human being who lived by the Commandments. Yet, Jesus saw something in him, the very thing which hindered the man’s ability to follow Jesus. The man had to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The man’s response says it all; he went away sad because he owned a lot of stuff.
This passage isn’t about money and possessions. Jesus didn’t have a problem with wealthy people. Jesus had a problem with wealthy people whose wealth hindered their ability to follow God’s holy ways. The man in the story did not find his value in being one of God’s beloved; he found his value in his stuff. In other words he loved his wealth more than he loved God. He couldn’t let go of his possessions and so could not grab hold of Jesus in any meaningful way.
Here’s the thing. There are countless things that hinder us from following Jesus. We mistake our stuff for our value as human beings. We put money, power, success, fame, and other things between us and God. We love the stuff we can hold onto and accumulate more than we love God. We also sometimes love our traditions and beliefs more than we love God. This can take the form of mistakenly worshiping scripture rather than the One to whom it points.
This is at least part of the problem when it comes to mental health. We can’t shake the old way of understanding these things. Even the U.S. healthcare system is built on Puritanical values. Most insurance companies will reimburse for ten sessions with a therapist, and no more without a lot of paperwork. Similarly, only 28 days of in-patient treatment for mental health conditions, including addictions are included. And for someone who is disabled by a mental health condition it can take ridiculous amounts of paperwork and phone calls before they can receive SSDI. It is long past the time that religious folks recognize that mental illnesses are brain diseases. Brain diseases that can be treated with a combination of medications, therapy, and social supports.
Imagine what life could be like for those with mental health challenges if the church became one of those social supports. What would it be like if people living with symptoms of mental illness were embraced by a faith community that affirmed them as beloved children of God who are part of the Body of Christ? For this to happen, we need to let go of outdated beliefs, fear, and judgment. If we are able to let go of these things, we can follow Jesus with significantly less hinderance. We don’t have to go away sad because we value our belief system more than we value Jesus’ call to love one another even as we are loved.
Tradition, literalism, fear, misinformation, media portrayals, and more bind us to a theology that is killing us. The church is in a unique place to offer loving community to people who have historically been marginalized. For those who live with hopelessness and feeling unneeded, unwanted, or unloved, the church can incarnate divine love by being a community where one is known, loved, and valued.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? We must let go of all that is between us and recognizing Christ in another. We must let go of that which binds us to shame, stigma, and silence. People are dying because we have failed to be the Body of Christ. We have failed to save lives. Let’s do better.
RCL – Year B – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – October 14, 2018
Job 23:1-9, 16-17 with Psalm 22:1-15
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 with Psalm 90:12-17